December 20, 2022 • Third Third Journal
If you want to live long and well in the third third of your life, and if you smoke cigarettes, it would be a good plan to quit. I expect you know this, whether you smoke or not. There’s plenty of scientific evidence that shows the health risks associated with smoking.
But here’s something you may not know. According to an academic paper called “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review,”
Data across 308,849 individuals, followed for an average of 7.5 years, indicate that individuals with adequate social relationships have a 50% greater likelihood of survival compared to those with poor or insufficient social relationships. The magnitude of this effect is comparable with quitting smoking . . . [italics added].
If you’re in the third third of life, having “adequate social relationships” helps you live long and well to the same degree as quitting smoking. You don’t even need great relationships to benefit from them. “Adequate” relationships are sufficient. To put it differently, “the mortality risk of loneliness is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
I was not expecting that! Maybe you weren’t either. So, what should we do in light of this surprising data? Here’s an obvious implication: If you want to flourish in the third third of life, nurture social relationships. Focus on developing, cultivating, and enjoying relationships with the key people in your life: your family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, church members, mentees, fellow volunteers, pickleball partners, small group companions, and, well, you name it.
To put it memorably: If you want to flourish in the third third of life, you can’t do it alone!
Too Many People are Doing It Alone
The fact that you can’t flourish if you “do it alone” may seem obvious and not worthy of fanfare. But when it comes to older adults in the U.S., way too many of us are in fact doing it alone. According to a recent article from the Centers for Disease Control in the United States:
Loneliness and social isolation in older adults are serious public health risks affecting a significant number of people in the United States and putting them at risk for dementia and other serious medical conditions.
A report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) points out that more than one-third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely, and nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated. Older adults are at increased risk for loneliness and social isolation because they are more likely to face factors such as living alone, the loss of family or friends, chronic illness, and hearing loss [italics added].
Loneliness has to do with what people feel; social isolation is the lack of social contact. The first is subjective; the second is objective. Often the two go together, but not always. You can live with people but still feel lonely, or you can live by yourself but enjoy meaningful relationships that prevent loneliness. The important point is that both loneliness and social isolation can shorten your life, especially as you get older. Therefore, relationships are essential to our flourishing.
Relationships Matter Even More Than You Might Think
So far in this article, I’ve underlined the importance of third third relationships from a negative perspective. If you don’t have even adequate relationships – as is true for many older adults – it’s likely that you are limiting your flourishing and reducing your lifespan. Odds are that you will live with less joy for less time.
Now I’d like to make the case for relationships from a positive perspective. This is something I’ve written and spoken about many times before, so what I’m going to say here may be familiar to you. But I believe it’s worth additional attention because relationships are so utterly essential to flourishing in the third third of life. As I present this material again and again in various settings, I find that I need to be reminded of its indispensable truth.
The vital importance of relationships for third third flourishing has been demonstrated by one of the longest and most respected studies of human development ever undertaken. Beginning in the late 1930s, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has focused on human health and well-being. Rather than studying abnormal psychology – as was common among academic psychologists when the study began – the Harvard Study, originally called the Grant Study in honor of its chief funder, sought to discover what is normal, healthy, and positive in human development and experience.
Initially, the Grant Study focused on 268 recruits from the Harvard classes of 1939 through 1944. (One of those recruits was a young man named, John F. Kennedy, who was a member of the Harvard class of 1940.) The recruits underwent extremely thorough medical and psychological examinations, including in-depth interviews of the participants and their families. This level of scrutiny continued throughout the lifetimes of the study participants. By 2017, 19 of the original 268 subjects were still alive, all well into their nineties. After beginning the study by focusing on Harvard men, the study added much more diversity, including men from non-privileged contexts and women from the Terman study of “gifted children.”
Among other things, the Harvard study sought to address the question: How can we live well as we grow older? The study’s scholars were looking for data on how people might live throughout their lives so that they would thrive in what we call the third third of life.
Though the study produced mountains of academic research, the study’s directors have summarized its findings for us in accessible ways. Perhaps the most available is a TED talk by current director Dr. Robert Waldinger. What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness was given in 2015. Since then, it has been watched over 43,000,000 times!
Here’s how Waldinger summarizes the findings of the Adult Development study:
So what have we learned? What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pages of information that we’ve generated on these lives? Well, the lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period [italics added].
Let’s repeat that one more time. After decades of study and tens of thousands of pages of research data, the bottom line is this. “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.” Wow!
Waldinger adds another surprising result of the Harvard study:
Once we had followed our men all the way into their 80s, we wanted to look back at them at midlife and to see if we could predict who was going to grow into a happy, healthy octogenarian and who wasn’t. And when we gathered together everything we knew about them at age 50, it wasn’t their middle age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80 [italics added].
Based on the Harvard study, Waldinger also affirms what I wrote at the beginning of this essay about the negative impact of loneliness. “[We’ve learned that] social connections are really good for us, and that loneliness kills. It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected. And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic.”
In his commendation of relationships, Waldinger concurs with George Vaillant, his predecessor as director of the Harvard Study. In his book Triumphs of Experience, Vaillant writes, “[I]t was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives” (p. 40, italics added). Later, Vaillant said, “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships [italics added].”
So, from the Harvard Study of Adult Development, we learn that relationships are crucial for third third flourishing. In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that they are the most important contributor to living fully and fruitfully in older adulthood. Therefore, once again we confront this basic reality: If you want to flourish in the third third of life, you can’t do it alone!
How We Respond to this Reality
As you read this, you will likely respond in ways that reflect your particular experience and situation. If, for example, you are happily married and have several close friends, you probably hear the importance of relationships as good news. You’re on the right track to flourish! On the contrary, if you have recently lost your spouse or a best friend, or if you have physical limitations that make it hard for you to be where people are, the value of relationships for third third flourishing can feel like one more source of discouragement. A dear friend of mine recently lost her husband of fifty years. Their marriage had been an unusually close one, so she is often alone and feels quite lonely. Though she certainly gets the importance of relationships, her painful situation would make it hard for her to hear just how much relationships matter for her flourishing. How will she be able to live well without her husband?
In many cases, our situations involve a mix of experiences and feelings about our relationships. A year ago, I was talking with a man in his early 70s about his experience of retirement. He was excitedly telling me how great it was, how he loves serving on several boards, and how he has more time with his wife, children, and grandchildren. I was just about to conclude that this man had an exceptionally happy life when his tone changed completely. “Oh,” he said with a sad sigh, “last year my best friend died. He and I had been friends for over sixty years. I miss him terribly and realize I will never have another friend like that as long as I live. It’s so hard for me.” This man would love to be aging with his lifelong friend, but this is no longer possible.
As I have considered the truth of “you can’t do it alone” as it relates to my own life, I have seen things in a new light and made several changes in how I live. I value my wife, family, and close friends even more than I did before. I have made more of an effort to connect with dear friends, regularly chatting by phone or getting together for coffee. Am I doing this mainly because I want to flourish as I age? Well, maybe in part, though I admit that sounds rather egocentric. But the fact is that I’m learning to enjoy the relationships that matter so much to me. Moreover, I now realize that by strengthening these relationships I’m also helping those I care about to flourish. Imagine that!
I am hopeful that, when we learn about the importance of relationships as we age, we won’t just think of ourselves, but also will think of others. Yes, we will invest more in the people who mean the most to us already, our families and dearest friends. But I believe that, by God’s grace, we can also be inspired to reach out to folks who are experiencing loneliness or social isolation. While writing this article, for example, I texted the friend I mentioned above, the one who recently lost her husband, asking how she was doing. (She likes texting for informal communication, by the way.) I suggested that we might talk by phone sometime soon. She agreed, so we set up a call for tomorrow. Would I have done this before becoming aware of the importance of relationships and the dangers of loneliness for third third folk? Perhaps, because I do care about my friend. But, given what I now understand about relationships, I am much more likely to act on my care for people, rather than feeling it but quickly getting back to my own busy life.
So much more could be said about the value of relationships for third third flourishing. Among other things, I believe the church has exceptional potential to become a community in which lonely and/or isolated people find genuine connection and heartfelt love. But I’ll save these thoughts for another time.
For now, I’d like to encourage you to take to heart the truth that, if you want to flourish in the third third of life, you can’t do it alone. God has created you as a relational being and you will live fully and fruitfully when you are in relationship with others. This is true in every season of life, especially in the third third. As you seek to flourish by nurturing the core relationships of your life, be sure to reach out to those who might be isolated or lonely. Your time with them will make a big difference in their lives . . . and in yours too.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.